If someone had asked gamers a week ago who was pushing story driven games forward, most would have said it was a close competition between Telltale Games and Dontnod Entertainment. Fast forward to today, and the burden has been decidedly forced upon the latter.
For those not in the know, Telltale Games is effectively in the process of being shut down. On Sept. 21, it was announced that 250 of the 275 employees at the studio had been laid off, with the remaining 25 being kept on to complete the current season of the Minecraft: Story Mode series. All of it current or announced projects were canceled, and The Walking Dead: The Final Season is currently in limbo as to whether it will be released to players incomplete or have its last two episodes finished in one way or another.
It’s been depressing for everyone involved, and has left fans of story driven adventure games with an understandably bad taste in their mouths. After all, Telltale was one of the foremost creators of games with a focus on story and writing, and their downfall leaves a sizable gap to be filled by a new studio. There’s no question as to who will fill it either: Dontnod Entertainment, the creators of the Life is Strange series and the recent action RPG Vampyr. In recent years, they’ve established themselves as the closest, and sometimes only, competition to Telltale, and their skill in telling stories through the gaming medium has only improved with time.
And yet, with this new crown comes a task even more harrowing than what Telltale faced for years: Dontnod will have to continue to push the story driven adventure genre forward, this time alone and with big shoes to fill.
While there are plenty of developers out there who craft noteworthy stories and relatable characters to go along with their games, not many put the same focus onto it that Telltale did. Part of this was because of the limitations of their in-house engine and design framework, but another, sizable part was their dedication to what made them special. They knew how to craft a good story with a cast people would come to care about, and that people would remember as some of the best interpretations of existing franchises. They proved it with The Walking Dead through Clementine’s growth from a scared child into a capable survivor; they proved it with The Wolf Among Us, where players saw first hand the struggles of Bigby Wolf to decide whether he would prove to those around him he was no longer a monster; and they proved it with their take on Batman, which delivered one of the most complex and engrossing stories of how the Joker and Batman’s fates were forever intertwined.
It was through these efforts that story driven titles gained not only a better footing in mainstream gaming, but also made leaps and bounds forward from where they’d been. They became a genre all their own, and they need a developer to champion them in the same way Telltale did if they want to continue to grow and improve as they have.
It’s a tall order, but Dontnod may be the only ones able to fill it. Yes, there are other studios like Supermassive Games who have developed story-focused experiences over the years, but few dedicated themselves to the genre with such focus, or such success, as Dontnod.
For proof, look no further than what they’ve done with Life is Strange. Seemingly out of nowhere, the team made a series full of characters that players found themselves caring for more and more with each new episode. They were shattered by the more impossible choices the game forced them to make, not least of was which the final choice which split people on doing what was right for the majority of those they’d met throughout the story and what the lead characters they’d been with for so many hours would want.
Not only that, but they tackled subjects and issues ranging from the everyday to the more serious and culturally relevant. In the first game alone, players faced the social anxieties of click culture as well as the challenges of helping someone struggling with suicidal thoughts and tendencies, all while delving into the subjects in a way that (usually) was willing to view it in a grounded way. The transitional episode, The Adventures of Captain Spirit, held the same strengths in its portrayal of abuse, with a subtle introspection of a young boy’s life at home with a father whose temper has put him in danger on more than one occasion. It doesn’t look to be shying away from these topics either, with the first episode of the series’ second season wrestling with current day issues of the treatment of immigrants and racism, all seen from the perspective of two young Mexican American brothers whose personalities rival Max and Chloe’s.
All of this has been done with a fairly new IP, which is a feat even Telltale never matched due to their focus on existing properties. Amidst a gaming industry ripe with series in the tens of entries, flush with remasters and edging ever closer into crossovers with other media, Dontnod has offered players something new. Even if everything they put out isn’t perfect, they still try to drive change, and that’s an admirable trait that shows all on its own that story driven games would be in good hands with them.
It’s not the outcome most would have wanted. Many gamers would have preferred both companies continue to thrive, compete with one another and deliver increasingly innovative and enthralling story driven games. Of the options available though, we could do far worse than to have Dontnod lead the charge in the genre’s growth and development. They have the talent and the drive, and with luck, they’ll be able to continue to push the genre forward with bigger and better offerings.